An Interview with Casey Burns: Radio Silence Art Director, Artist, and Musician

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Casey Burns is a true renaissance man. Art Director of the esteemed and groundbreaking journal Radio Silence, Burns is also a highly creative designer and bassist.

Burns was kind enough to take the time to tell SEM about his world. Please enjoy what he has to say, along with his poster art, which illustrates his remarks. You’ll recognize many of the bands for whom he’s made posters – we guarantee it.

SEM: Thank you, Casey, for taking the time to chat today. I’d like to begin by asking you to describe for our readers Radio Silence.

CB: Thanks so much for having me. Radio Silence is a semi-annual book-sized journal, featuring writing from some of the biggest names in literature and music. We’re also heavy on illustration, featuring full-page title pieces and spot illustrations by top-of-the-field artists. Issues are around 200-pages each and run the gamut between fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews.

We also publish a monthly digital edition, which includes some of the same content of our print issues, as well as digital exclusives. These digital exclusives include interviews, record and book reviews by the likes of Rick Moody and Sylvie Simmons, exclusive songs, podcast-style audio documentaries, and other bonus media content.

SEM: You’re about to release your third print issue. Who are some of the authors that appear in the issue and what are they writing about?

CB: Our third issue includes a first-ever memoir from Lucinda Williams, an interview with Ian MacKaye, a conversation between Carrie Brownstein and Daniel Handler, and more from playwright David Ives, New Yorker poetry editor Paul Muldoon, author Tobias Wolff, and many others. Past issues have included work from New Yorker Editor David Remnick, Ray Bradbury, Sam Lipsyte, Rick Moody, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky and Jim White.

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SEM: How does Radio Silence recruit writers of such merit to publish in the magazine?

CB: Editor-in-chief Dan Stone spent six years working for the NEA, producing radio shows that included interviews with famous writers, actors, musicians, and other artists about great works of fiction. I can’t speak for him, but I think he formed a lot of lasting relationships during those productions, and many of the same folks are now contributing to our magazine. From my own experience working with Sonic Youth on some projects in the past, I was able to get founding member Lee Ranaldo to agree to write a piece for a future issue.

SEM: What is your aim regarding the artistic direction of Radio Silence?

CB: I come from a background of illustration and printmaking, so the fact that we print each issue with black and a single spot color is really exciting for me. Rather than try to get close to what a full-color magazine could look like, I prefer to lean into the perceived limitations of two-color printing and really go for bold areas of flat color. I urge my artists to avoid using color percentages, gradients, or greys, and to approach their pieces like you would a screen-printed rock poster. The end result is really striking. Working this way, the very different styles of each of our artists still manage to feel very at home next to each other in one book.

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SE: What does Radio Silence offer that other magazines don’t?

CB: For me, it’s a beautifully produced combination of my three great loves: music, art, and writing. Rock critic Greil Marcus, who also contributed to our new issue, sums it up nicely in this review he gave us in The Believer. He said Radio Silence, “Is something people have been waiting for fifty years: writing in, through, beside, around, and about music, where the first criterion is writing … [It is] a radical overturning of the whole notion of what music is, what it’s for, where you find it, where it goes, and one issue contains not a hint of what another one might have to offer.”

SEM: What do you feel are the key differences between print and digital publications in terms of the creative process?

CB: The biggest difference is scale. Just because something looks great in a 6” x 9” book doesn’t mean it looks great, or even legible, on a phone, which is where most of our digital audience is reading our content. Designing for such a small canvas can be limiting. At the same time, I still enjoy applying the same two-color palette to our digital issues. Only in rare instances, like the cover of a record that is reviewed, will you see full-color in our digital edition. Digital readers enjoy shorter reads, so our digital issues are much shorter than our print editions, and the articles themselves are usually much briefer than, say, an entire short story by Don Carpenter, like you would find in our second print issue.

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SEM: What about in terms of the reading experience?

CB: I’m a huge fan of print, so if forced to choose, I will always pick lugging around a printed book on the subway over reading on a phone or tablet. However, in our case it’s apples and oranges, since the content is so different between the two mediums. There is some overlap, but every digital issue has content that will not or cannot appear in the print editions. We have a 30-minute audio documentary on The Maltese Falcon. We have an exclusive cover of Pixies’ “Debaser” from Rogue Wave. We have audio of Lucinda Williams reading the works of her poet father, Miller Williams. I hate to give it such a hard sell, but if you like what we are doing, you’ll want to get the printed books and the digital issues to get it all.

I’m also excited to announce that we are re-launching our digital edition this week. We partnered with a new publishing platform, TypeEngine, and I have completely redesigned the look of the app and all 10 issues we have published to date. New cover images, new illustration layouts, new user experience, and some small editorial improvements have been added to each issue. Additionally, the free app will no longer be buried in Apple’s iOS “newsstand” feature, but will be a free-standing app that users can place anywhere they like on the home screen of their devices.

SEM: Let’s switch gears and talk about your work as a visual artist and musician. What’s the connection between your art and poster design and your bass playing?

CB: Well, there’s not a huge connection between my artwork and my bass playing, aside from it all revolving around music. I’m a much better artist than bass player. I worked in a great music venue in North Carolina, the Cat’s Cradle, for close to 10 years. In addition to working the door and the bar, I was the in-house art director. I designed Xerox flyers for all of our shows, and screen-printed larger posters for the higher-profile ones. These posters eventually ended up in several coffee table books on poster design, and my illustration career finally took off once agency art directors saw my work in those books. I’ve since done work for Nike, Deschutes Brewery, Three Barrels Brandy in the UK, record art for Modest Mouse, and all kinds of fun projects.

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SEM: For whom have you designed posters – and do you have any favorites?

CB: I’ve designed posters for literally hundreds of bands, but the work I’m most proud of would have to be the posters I’ve done for Sonic Youth and Spoon. The Spoon posters were a thematic series and were a nod to my film noir and paperback cover influences. I love the work of illustrator Robert McGinnis, and I was trying hard to channel his seductive women and clever compositions into those posters.

SEM: Where might we have heard your bass playing? Please mention any specific artists with whom you’ve worked.

CB: The Rosebuds would be the most well-known band I’ve played with. I did a full US tour with them in support of their album Life Like in 2008. Prior to that, I was in the Nein from 2003-2006, alongside Dale Flattum of Steel Pole Bath Tub, and Finn Cohen and Robert Biggers, formerly of the White Octave. We put out a handful of records and toured a hell of a lot, and Canadians knew all the words to our songs, as we were on an Ontario label.

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SEM: Would you please describe the work you’ve done with guitarist Scott Sosebee?

CB: Scott and I met in the summer of 1995, when we had both just moved to Athens, Georgia. We hit it off right away, with similar tastes in art, screen-printing, and music. Over the years we always stayed in touch, but never lived in the same town again until I moved to New York in 2011. Within two weeks of getting here, Scott and I formed a new band with three others. Scott’s one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen, and he and I make a really solid rhythm section together. It was really great to finally play with him, after going to see each other’s bands for a decade or more.

LD Beghtol was friends with members of our band, and eventually poached us both to join his current outfit, LD&CO, but with Scott switching over to guitar. He’s an incredible guitarist, but he’ll never admit it. He modestly claims to be just a drummer with a guitar.

Outside of music, Scott’s also a tremendously talented artist and designer. I’ve had the pleasure of hiring him for several projects for Radio Silence, illustrating pieces by Thao Nguyen, David Ives, and Pulitzer prize winning poet Paul Muldoon.

SEM: LD asked me to ask you about your “lovely bass rig”…

CB: I do love my bass rig. Looks great, sounds great. I play a late 70s Travis Bean TB2000 bass through a late 70s Music Man HD-130, the version that’s all tube except for a hybrid solid state/tube pre-amp. For years I played through a 2×15” cabinet, but I sold it when I left NC. My friend Hank at Old Town Music in Portland found me a Music Man single 15” cabinet that’s a perfect match for the head, same year and everything. The bass has an aluminum neck that extends through the body, and has the nicest tone and sustain I’ve ever heard. It also sounds like every band I listened to from Chicago in 1995.

Speaking of LD, we were introduced when I moved to New York. But way back in 1999, when I was working at the Cat’s Cradle in North Carolina, he was in the club with The Magnetic Fields for the Merge Records 10th anniversary show. He was looking for the backstage area, and peeked into my office and saw me working on a Billy Bragg poster design. He gave me his card, telling me to look him up if I ever moved to New York and needed help finding a design job. Life cracks me up. We’re finishing up an album’s worth of recordings together now.

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SEM: You’ve lived all over the country. What prompted you to move around so much?

CB: Romance and finance, mostly. I spent the bulk of my life in North Carolina, and thirteen of those years in Chapel Hill. I went to school at UNC and remained in town for a long time. After that, I headed west, spending six years in Portland, Oregon, and now I’m beginning my fourth year in New York. I also spent some time in Athens, Georgia, working for a music PR firm, and Seattle, where I interned with the police department when I was 19 years old. All great locations with incredible music scenes.

SEM: Do you like living in NYC? Care to explain…

CB: This city is a huge pain in the ass, but I love it.

(All poster art by Casey Burns)